I recently read an article I found on my PW Daily e-mail about if books will become more social over time like the newspaper and other media (for the full article: http://gigaom.com/2012/04/02/is-making-books-social-a-good-thing-or-a-bad-thing/). Apparently technophile Clive Thompson believes that the book, which has stubbornly resisted the trend to become social, as a solitary activity will disappear, replaced by the social book. I have severe reservations about this claim. Thompson thinks that books online and on e-readers will feature more commentary and conversation embedded within the book as you read. I am not sure that this feature will appeal to readers. I’m usually already annoyed when my e-book on the Kindle shows how many other people have highlighted a particular section, like they’re imposing on me what I should find important or poignant just because everybody else did. Add on inserted conversations embedded in the text, and I will begin a literary uprising. Bibliophiles read because they like the solitary nature of reading a book: curling up on the couch with a blanket, a cup of coffee, and a book is a relaxing past time for many people who enjoy taking time out of their day to be alone and in their heads while reading a book. Books allow our imagination to roam freely precisely because we are the only ones projecting the mental image in our heads, the only ones adding interpretation as we go along. We don’t want influence from others unless we discuss it (either forcibly for class or willingly for a book club).
Speaking of which, we already treat books in a social light. We go to book readings and signings; we join book clubs; we participate in online forums about book; we loan our books to our friends. This system seems to work–we seek out the social capacity of books when it suits us, and when reading alone strikes our fancy, we don’t have the internet blogosphere and twitterverse chattering in the background. The joy of reading, at least in my opinion, is the love of doing something on your own, that for that time is your own, your own experience. There is a reason that book lovers have a stereotype for being shy and introverted: many of them are, which is precisely why they like to be alone, in their own heads, reading a book.
Here’s a quote from Thompson about how much books will enormously benefit from a social aspect: “Books are going to provoke the best conversations because people think really deeply about them. And people bring a certain level of intellectual seriousness to them that they don’t even necessarily bring to newspapers. I am absolutely convinced that being able to see what other people have said about a book and to talk about it and respond to it is going to be a freakishly huge boon for books.” Like I said above, we already do this. It’s called the book club. If I want to talk about a book, I’ll seek out other people who have similar literary tastes, and we’ll eat pastries and drink frothy, foamy drinks in little cups and discuss man’s inhumanity to man in the book. We already post reviews of books on Amazon or comment on others’ reviews through the various websites that post commentary on books for potential readers. I am not sure how Thompson proposes we integrate the conversation further into books, and if he’s proposing adding in comment features onto e-readers automatically, there better be an option to turn that stuff off. I’d say, “Get your comments out of my reading experience and your annotations off my e-pages. Get that highlighting off my electronic ink.”
Apparently, young people don’t like e-readers because they aren’t social. If this is the case, I’m deeply worried about our youth who appear unable to spend time alone, so desperate for artificial connection that they spend hours on facebook and twitter without ever picking up the phone. Through social media, are we training kids to rely on constant external stimulation and validation? Are we giving them the tools to never be disconnected and fear that disconnection, fear of being alone? Being alone is important, for solitude allows us to recuperate, to repair, to relax, and if we are afraid of being alone, ever, then we are afraid of being human. Sherry Turkle discusses this phenomenon in her Ted Talk, alone together, which can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtLVCpZIiNs
Perhaps it’s time we ask ourselves why newspapers, books, movies, etc, must become social activities. Perhaps this impulse to constantly share and connect is a negative rather than a positive. Maybe it’s time we find time to be alone and live, just for a little while, within the pages of a book.